Celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe the Tenejapa Way
(by Dr. Julie Mickelson)
I knew my fourth visit to our sister parish in Chiapas was going to be special from the moment we got on the freeway from the airport on our way to Tenejapa. Just like the Olympic torch is run to the site of the Olympic Games, the Mexican youth literally run a torch from the Basilica in Mexico City to their home communities. We passed multiple torch runners and trucks filled with young people in matching tshirts, faces painted. Too bad we were going too fast to get a good picture in the dark. It was during an antorcha run that Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image first appeared to the young people of Tenejapa, setting off a cascade of events which resulted in Our Lady requesting a shrine be built in Pocolum nearby. At the time of our last visit, nearly three years before, the Shrine, a mini version of the Shrine in Mexico City, had walls but no roof and we gave our natural family planning course in the open air. Now the Shrine is nearly complete and has a marble floor imported from Italy to boot. The architect “el arque”, a celebrity in Tenejapa, was present for the festivities and stayed at the parish with us. He had another architect along and a civil engineer and they were doing free consults in communities hoping to build new “hermitas” or chapels.
A novena of prayers and adoration culminated on the vigil of the feast day with youth activities and processions, including the caracol or snail procession which is a traditional indigenous practice. The torch arrived in time for the Holy Hour. All the deacons and their wives were in full regalia. The Mayan altar on the floor was gorgeous, complete with incense, a Bible, flowers, the 13 candles. 13 is a very auspicious number in Mayan lore, in Catholic ceremonies the candles represent Jesus and the 12 Apostles. They put the Blessed Sacrament right in the middle of the Mayan altar. During traditional prayer, you kneel for about 20 minutes and pray out loud, pouring out your heart to God. Once everyone seems done you get up and dance for about another 20 minutes, fortunately an easy to learn bounce. We spent a lot of time in church during our visit and my knees have not quite recovered.
I remembered back to my first visit to Tenejapa when we had a Mass complete with kneeling and dancing right in the coffee warehouse, and I realized those practices had been nearly absent on my second and third visits. It turns out that the new pastor, Padre Antonio, has been very supportive of bringing back “enculturation” or the integration of traditional indigenous practices into practice of the Catholic faith. I was overjoyed to see my compadre Deacon Juan Giron once again front and center assisting at Mass, and to hear that he was actively involved in the Diocesan committee dedicated to preserving the rich Mayan culture in the face of so many outside pressures.
The feast day itself brought 8,000 people to the shrine. Padre Antonio packed 12,000 hosts in the jeep to bring for the celebration and for the parishioners to take back to their hermitas. The firecrackers went off nonstop. There were food booths along the road and entertainment after lunch. We proudly wore our traditional garb that we had been presented, but it was a little unnerving to hear all the giggles as we walked around, the gringos playing dress up.
The next two days we gave our natural family planning class in a community closer to Oxchuc. The course began and ended with a traditional prayer ceremony complete with the kneeling and the dancing, but this time we all had maracas to use during the dancing portion. Our students were all men, designated by each of their communities to be in charge of public health.
Several weeks ago I drove to the Mayo clinic, quite the contrast to the clinic in Pocolum, currently housed in a trailer. I went along to my brother’s oncology appointment and on the way home I stopped at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse. It was so quiet and peaceful. I bought a book about the apparition and was amazed to discover that enculturation actually started way back with Our Lady of Guadalupe. She appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous convert, on Tepeyac hill which was the site of a pagan temple to the “mother god.” She spoke to him in his own dialect, and her image on the tilma incorporates many Aztec symbols. As a result of her apparition 8 million indigenous Mexicans converted to the faith.
All at once it made so much sense to me, the fervor of the devotion of our Hermanos in Tenejapa to Our Lady of Guadalupe, how appropriate that she would ask for a shrine to be built on the hill in Pocolum . And I felt so fortunate to have been able to celebrate her feast day the Tenejapa way.